Friday, April 17, 2009

Reading Journal: "Hons and Rebels"

Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels. Introduction by Christopher Hitchens. New York Review Books 2004. (Originally published in 1960). Paperback. $14.00.

"How I loathe that kind of novel which is about a lot of sisters," says the narrator at the beginning of Rachel Ferguson's The Bront√ęs Went to Woolworths. But I think even she would have loved Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels. To clarify: it's not a novel, it's a wonderfully witty and engaging memoir that reads like a novel. It is about a lot of sisters. Jessica (known as Decca) was the fifth of six Mitford sisters, the daughters of Lord Redesdale, who grew up in dull and drafty Swinbrook House in the Cotswolds. The sisters are all "Hons" ("the Honorable Jessica Mitford"), but most of them manage, in some way, to rebel against the dull and often stifling atmosphere of their childhood. Jessica becomes a Communist, and as a girl spends dull afternoons scratching hammers and sickles into the window panes. Her older sister, eccentrically and prophetically named Unity Valkyrie, scratches Nazi swastikas into the glass.

Unity is Decca's favorite sister: tall and earnest and magnificently sullen as a teenager, she becomes Decca's beloved adversary in the ideological turf wars of the drawing room. A line is drawn down the center of the room: Decca's half is communist territory, Unity's is fascist. This is the mid-1930s, and Hitler has come to power in Germany, and Unity is smitten. Eventually she travels to Germany and, in part on the strength of her Aryan looks, manages to become part of Hitler's inner circle. As Europe moves closer to war, the sisters' drawing room standoffs become tragically real.

Under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, it's uncertain whether England will ally with the Nazis against the Communists, or vice versa. In this atmosphere of dispirited uncertainty, Decca escapes to Spain with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill's nephew, to join the resistance against Franco. The first half of the memoir is a wonderful social comedy about "a lot of sisters" in an English country house; the second half is a wonderful kind of picaresque romantic comedy about the adventures and misadventures of Decca and Esmond in Europe and America.

Hons and Rebels is laugh-out-loud, read-out-loud funny, filled with an enormous zest for life even in the midst of personal tragedy and cataclysmic world historical events. Esmond Romilly is a magnetic character who steals the girl and the show; Decca's enormous love and admiration for him, and her perplexed and regretful love for her sister Unity, give this memoir heart and soul to go with all the laughter.

Pictured on the book cover: Unity and Jessica Mitford, ages 8 and 4.

Currently reading: Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September
On the top of the TBR pile: Randal Keynes, Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution & Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune's Maggot
Waiting for me at the bookstore: Jetta Carleton, The Moonflower Vine

2 comments:

Penelope said...

I've read this. My mother's family crossed paths with the Mitford family when she was young. My grandfather was a chauffeur in London and the family lived in a mews where several posh families, including the Mitfords, kept their "motor cars." Apparently my grandfather was washing down one of his employer's Bugattis one day in the mid-1930s when Unity Mitford drove in. He commented on the fact she was displaying German flags rather than British on her vehicle, and she went to his boss and had him dismissed for insubordination. My grandmother went and pleaded to save his job (they would have been out of their house as well as the job), and they were allowed to stay. Whew, eh?

Mandy Katz said...

What I love about Hons and Rebels is the air of Babes in Toyland given off by Jessica and her young husband's adventures in pre-war U.S.A. Her husband, Romilly, a nephew of Churchill, feared nothing, it seemed. Traveling on a shoestring and collecting letters of introduction from the well-connected, they bounced cheerfully from city to city and job to job -- bartending, shop clerk, door to door hosiery sales. (Romilly was great at door to door, it turned out, and made a lot of money in Chevy Chase, DC.) They mixed with ordinary people but also socialized (in their single set of dress clothes) with elites like the Meyers, who owned the Washington Post.

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